This stuff really works…

tmla website

Last fall we worked with The Mary Louis Academy, a private, Catholic school for young women in Jamaica Estates, New York. Enrollment at the school was dropping, girls were not listing TMLA as their first choice, and nearby co-ed schools were competing for and attracting girls who no longer seemed to want an all-girls education. We began in the admissions office to see what was working and what needed to change. We suggested how to approach new markets, how to increase campus visits, how to improve attendance at open house events, and more. With a vigorous admissions plan in hand, we then created a new website, print brochure, and graphic standards manual to ensure that all communications stayed on message.

Results as of February 2016 are remarkable. Students who selected TMLA as first choice rose by 50%. Second choice rose 11%.  The story is ongoing but we can clearly see things are looking up at TMLA. Smart marketing really works!

The power of authenticity

maier

Vivian Maier was an intensely private street photographer whose work was discovered by accident in 2007, two years before her death. Since her discovery, writers, historians, art collectors, and the public have fallen in love with her work and are burning to learn more about the enigmatic person behind the Rolleiflex. Although she shot over 150,000 images, only a few were ever printed. In fact, over 2,000 rolls of film were left unprocessed in the canister. In spite of that, her work matured in concept and quality over the course of her life. How does a photographer improve without seeing the photos? How does a full-time nanny find time to become such a masterful observer? Those are the kinds of questions I and thousands of other admirers have about Maier. I think our fascination is rooted in Maier’s authenticity. She had a genuine passion for photography—a passion that she followed without the need for critique by others or audience approval. Her creative drive was an end in in itself. That authenticity is enormously appealing. That is the quality we all should aspire to in our work for education. The closer we come to authentically capturing the essence of a place, the better we will communicate to our audience. Do the photos feel real or staged? Are the words honest or are they institution-speak? These things matter a great deal if you want to be seen and remembered.

Mixed messages

I noticed this eye-catching display outside of a restaurant in Rome. What a great idea! Too bad the cigarette butt and ashtray were left carelessly in the scene. Suddenly the idea of dinner here is much less appetizing. What a great reminder about the importance of minding the details when we reach out to our audiences. Happy marketing and buon appetito!

The handwriting on the wall…

Brush script calligraphy on book covers is having quite a surge of popularity these days. I’m not sure where the trend started, but I now imagine book cover designers being held captive until they agree to pick up the brush tool and swirl out letterforms. The irony is that all those handwritten covers are trying to project attributes like “unique,” “quirky,” and  “personal.”

Although design conformity can feel delightfully comfortable, you give up the opportunity to carve out your own distinctive brand position. Looking like our competitors will also be a major stumbling block if we hope to attract new prospects.

Passport fail


I just received my new passport in the mail. I was horrified—not over my photo, for once—but over the document’s overblown redesign. Gone are the flexible covers that allowed me to flip easily through the pages to admire all my entry and exit stamps and gone are the understated backgrounds that allowed clear legibility of those stamps, my personal data, and my photo. A passport is an official record of our travels to other lands and cultures. It seems contradictory to me that the redesigned pages are so obsessively focused on our own country’s culture and landmarks, as if our government is afraid we’ll forget where we come from.

I am surprised to write this, but not everything needs to be redesigned or rebranded. I like some things to remain unchanged by the whims and trivialities of the real world. Don’t redesign my passport, my license plates, or my money. But, if you must redesign them, please hire a professional who understands the importance of legibility, aesthetics, audience, and concept to do it.

Good infographics can save lives

I recently finished reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, a gripping account of a deadly cholera outbreak that struck London in the summer of 1854. Scientists of the time were convinced that cholera was an air-born disease brought on by the appalling sanitary conditions of Victorian-era London. Yes, London was a squalid place and inadequate waste and garbage removal was responsible for the potent smell that permeated the city. However, the root of the problem was not in the air but in the water. The water-born theory was first proposed by Dr. John Snow, based on his observations of the number of victims who were clustered near a particular fresh water pump. Snow was convinced that the pump was infected with the cholera bacteria and that drinking water from the pump was responsible for so many deaths. To help visualize the theory, he drew a black line on a map to indicate where each victim resided at the time of death. The map also pointed out the location of all water pumps in the area. Clearly there was a correlation between the pump and the number of deaths near it. Superstitions die hard, but eventually the map helped sway opinion away from the air-born theory.

It’s thrilling to see how innovative thinking and good information graphics played a heroic role in solving a frightening medical mystery. Yes, good infographics can save lives.

Checking out the competition

I recently judged digital designs for the University & College Designers Association’s (UCDA) annual competition, and the experience was an eye-opener. Unlike print design competitions where judges meet on location and review entries together, the digital judging was done remotely from our office computers. I was surprised at the amount of time it took to evaluate each entry. Unlike a print piece that can be sized up fairly quickly, a digital entry may require several minutes of study before getting a well-rounded picture. All in all, it took me several hours a day for about three days to complete the judging. This meant hours of tedium that were occasionally interrupted by a few gloriously smart and moving experiences.

After all three judges submitted their results, UCDA provided us with a spreadsheet compilation of our votes. I was astonished to see how closely we agreed on the award-winning work even though we had no discussion with each other while voting.

What makes an entry an award-winner? For me, the exceptional work did one of two things—it had an emotional impact on me and/or it taught me something. When design fails to make us feel or learn, there is not much reason to pay attention. When we shine, the work we do in educational marketing stands up to the best out there. That’s quite an achievement when you consider that schools rarely have the extravagant budgets of the corporate world. It proves, once again, that throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve anything. Great ideas, however, can and do.

Here are links to several competition entries that inspired me:

Website
Vassar Admissions
University of California
Arts at Stanford

Online magazine
Brenau Window

Video
Chatham University
Oregon State University
Simon Fraser University

Here is a complete list of gold, silver, and merit award winners. The digital entries are on the last page of the list.

What goes around comes around

What goes around comes around. 

The launch of Nike’s Better World website in 2011 marked a turning point in the way we see and use the web. The site used parallax scrolling, single page navigation, and eye-catching visuals in a fresh and exciting way. The single page layout engaged the viewer with rich, interactive storytelling and encouraged deeper exploration. Soon, a number of look-alike websites appeared on the scene, all trying to cash in on this cool, new online experience.

You may not be familiar with the term parallax, as it’s fairly new to the web, but it’s actually a technique that has been around since the early days of cartoon animation. Simply put, the illusion of depth is created by having one layer move faster or slower than another layer above it. Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie is an early example. Later, side scrolling video games, like Nintendo’s Megaman, used the technique. 

Like all things web 2.0, there are some pitfalls to look out for, such as cross-browser compatibility issues and in some cases slower load times. Before using any technique, consider your audience and the purpose of your site. For example, single page navigation would be a nightmare on an entire college website, but an admissions page or fundraising microsite could use the technique amazingly well. This Bay State College online admission’s viewbook is one good example.

The parallax trend shows no sign of fading away. With the rise of tablets and other touch screens, it’s no wonder these techniques have been embraced by so many designers.

Here are a few more examples of some stunning and effective single page websites:

A New Way

 “We aspire not just to be different from other schools, not even just to lead, but to show a new way.” This quote by Bernard T. Ferrari, dean of Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, introduces a new positioning concept we developed for the school’s Global MBA program. Lean copy and sumptuous photography emphasize Carey Business School’s commitment to educating business leaders who are prepared to tackle the most pressing issues of our time.